Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Class act

The KKK get their kicks in Jerry Springer: The Opera.

I have a friend with an interesting theory about the dreadful tradition of "blackface" - he feels the form, or at least its basic impulses, didn't actually disappear once racism was forced from the cultural stage; it simply re-surfaced as "whiteface," a new cultural mode in which classism replaced racism, and white trash and the trailer park became the newly-legitimized objects of happy, patronizing ridicule. It's an interesting idea, and one that came to mind repeatedly as I watched Jerry Springer: The Opera, the notorious high-low cultural mashup now in its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage.

For if anyone brought "whiteface" to full flower, it was Jerry Springer, the liberal Jew (his parents survived the Holocaust) whose "talk show" somehow morphed into an elaborate take-down of the dregs of white Christian conservatism. Indeed, over the course of the 90's and on into the millennium (it's actually still on in many markets), The Jerry Springer Show delivered image after image of an on-going cultural crack-up. Day after day, pathetic denizens of the Rust or Corn Belt would reveal that they were infected with precisely the same moral relativism that their own milieu loathed in the liberal elites: they were gay, or "cheaters," or were transvestites or had sex fetishes; or, even worse, they harbored the historic, but now-unmentionable, hatreds of their class, anti-Semitism and racism. Their families or relationships then seemed to fall apart as we watched; fights routinely broke out on stage, egged on by a crowd that all but seethed with angry condemnation. For this was the beauty of Springer's formula: it fed the righteous anger of conservative white trash while simultaneously revealing that said white trash was guilty of the very sins they were condemning. In a word, it was like watching the thrashing death throes of a whole subculture.

The mystery, of course, was why, exactly, so many troubled people came on to Jerry Springer to face the abuse. At first the conventional wisdom was that they were pathetic pop-cultural moths, lured by the klieg lights of celebrity, however brief or degraded; but gradually word leaked out that much of the show, like "pro" wrestling and other lower-class entertainments, was staged. Several guests have come forward over the years to describe partying weekends funded by the show in exchange for a half-hour of coached fights on-set. So just as Amos'n'Andy were played by whites, the promiscuous crackers on Jerry Springer were enacted by bemused parties performing semi-scripted roles. There were certainly cases in which the "reality" of the show was indeed all too grimly real (a murder closely followed one taping), but it gradually came clear that Jerry Springer was, indeed, the ringmaster of a circus of his own carefully orchestrated design.

But all this seems lost on the creators of Jerry Springer: The Opera, who ironically enough take the show's blasphemies on faith. Lyricist Stewart Lee and composer Richard Thomas keep the focus on Jerry's guests, whom they portray as crass but guileless, and driven to somehow validate themselves via humiliation on national TV. In a word, these strippers and she-males just wanna be loved, and is that so wrong? Well, no, I don't think so; if folks want to pole-dance or wear diapers, or pole-dance while wearing diapers, that's ok by me. But it's not very interesting.

What's more interesting is Jerry himself, and how he limned the cultural and economic fissures creeping under the working class, and then managed to tease it into melting down on live television - all while idolizing him, and making him a multi-millionaire. For while the guests may have been more faux than real, the audience was always definitely fo' real, and Jerry's relationship with them was the true subject of his show. But Lee and Thomas have almost nothing to say about our erstwhile host, or his strange symbiosis with the crowd; despite travails that include taking a bullet and a sojourn in Hell (below), he remains a cipher to the very end. We don't even get to see much of his sexual entanglements with porn stars, or his checkered business relationships (we do hear about the time he actually paid a working girl with a check). Indeed, we feel we know precisely as much about Jerry when the curtain falls as we did when it first rose.

Timothy John Smith heats up Jerry Springer. Photo(s) by Stratton McCrady.

And as a result, the show's a little dull. Oh, it's "shocking" all right - if you're the type that might have actually been in the audience of Jerry Springer: there are dancing Klansmen and double-timing transsexuals and a guy who gets off on poop. But these sad cases are all caricatures, not characters; they're not so much poster children for dysfunction as actual posters. And I'm afraid I didn't care how often they sang out for my sympathy, nor did I care that "everything that lives is holy," as Blake once said, and the musical reminds us (although is even the KKK holy?). Because while everything that lives may be holy, much of what lives is just plain silly, and that's basically what Jerry Springer: The Opera is. For it secretly wants to emulate the technique of the show itself, then chastise us for our reactions to its machinations; only didn't the real Jerry do that already, just much more effectively? In a word,The Opera is a pretty pale replacement for The Show.

Things might be a different if its vaunted mash-up of pop and opera worked the way we sort of imagine it should - that is, by giving these silly poseurs some sort of tragic stature. But alas, the music itself can't carry this much artistic weight: the pop writing is serviceable, and sometimes punchy, but the operatic writing is pretty lame - there are echoes of Bach and Handel in this stuff, but beyond said echoes the "arias" are often little better than recitative pushed up an octave (and the joke of having sopranos warble "What the fuck???" gets a little old). SpeakEasy has found voices that can hit the high notes, although sometimes they get a little shrieky or strained; probably the best singing comes from tenor Luke Grooms. Meanwhile Michael Fennimore makes a physically convincing but disappointingly blank Jerry - even within the limited confines of the script - but SpeakEasy stalwarts Timothy John Smith, Kerry A. Dowling, and Amelia Broome all do entertaining double or triple duty in various roles (Broome in particular covers an astounding amount of caricatured ground), and there are solid turns from John Porell and Joelle Lurie. Director Paul Daigneault keeps things moving, although somehow hasn't managed to conjure much real transgressive electricity from the material, and the dangerous anger of that all-important crowd is missing from his staging (he mixes actual audience members in with the cast, which sounds like a good idea, but probably helps dissipates that energy). Still, at least the design is top-notch (as usual for SpeakEasy): Julian Crouch's set and animations precisely conjure both Jerry's mid-90's look and its tacky equivalent in Hell.

And of course some sort of bouquet should be thrown to those innocent Bostonians who appeared outside the theater to protest the production (below). Where would we be without these folks to simulate a sense of controversy? They were enraged by some silly stuff in the second act (Jesus in a diaper, etc.) that wants a bit desperately to shock, but instead comes off as satirically toothless filler. You sort of wonder if these types realize that they are themselves merely playing an assigned role in a kind of larger, meta-version of Jerry's show - proof positive that Jerry's vision is still relevant; if only Jerry Springer: The Opera had the insight or chops to do it justice.

Jerry goes meta: the protestors at SpeakEasy seemed to be direct from central casting. Photo by Mark L. Saperstein.

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